Currently in limited release, Belle falls comfortably and unremarkably in the canon of period dramas but has the distinction of being based on a true story. Unlike others in the canon like your Pride and Prejudices and your Emmas, slavery is a central part of the narrative. Mansfield Park is the only similar film I can think of that presents the conflict about slavery in British society head-on, though it was a major issue of the time.
Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a woman born to an African slave and an aristocratic British admiral in the late 1700s. The mother passes away and the admiral reluctantly leaves his daughter in the care of his uncle when he is called back to sea.
Belle grows up as nobility and in a household that loves her, but because of her skin color she can’t be a full member of British aristocratic society. Still, she doesn’t know much about the plight of African slaves until a passionate young abolitionist crosses her path (cue the film’s incessantly swelling score).
The film (rated PG) flips the typical setup of a period drama plot: In this case, Belle has plenty of money, while her white cousin is penniless and hunting a rich husband. But even in British aristocracy where inheritance is everything, money can’t overcome racism.
The romance isn’t the reason to see this film. Belle’s guardian and uncle Lord Mansfield (the excellent Tom Wilkinson) is Britain’s highest judge, and has before him a case concerning a slave trading company seeking insurance compensation after the crew of a slave ship threw overboard slaves, a real and important case. The uncle’s inability to see the connection between his fatherly love for Belle and the humanity of slaves represented in the case is the most interesting part of the story.
Though the period drama genre needed a film that presents a British-African woman as the heroine, Lord Mansfield, not Belle, ends up as the central character.